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Post-Brexit Britain will be left with an unbalanced, maternalist leave policy of long maternity leave with weak and marginalised parental leave, an expert told a roundtable on working parents after the UK leaves the European Union.
Emeritus Professor Peter Moss for UCL Institute of Education acknowledged it was doubtful there would be much movement legislation-wise with the government tied up with Brexit. However, he called on UK researchers to maintain relationships with their counterparts in progressive countries in the EU, like Sweden and Norway, which had some of the most advanced parental leave policies in the world, so they could learn about how to improve UK policies. He added that he would like to see UK policymakers go beyond parental leave and look at life course time credit policies instead of just focusing on those few months after the birth of children.
Professor Moss mentioned the recent announcement about parental leave by the EU, including the guarantee of a minimum of 10 days of paternity leave, four months of non-transferable parental leave per parent to be paid at at least statutory sick pay level and five days per year per parent for caring for sick or dependent relatives to be paid at statutory sick pay level or more. There were “very modest improvements”, he said, but they introduced the principle of paid parental leave and time off to care for sick dependents. “They should stimulate discussion, but the media will probably ignore it,” he said.
Speaking at Thursday’s UCL Grand Challenge of Justice and Equality, co-chaired by Professor Margaret O’Brien, Professor Moss described the evolution of UK parental leave policy in relation to EU policy. The UK had not made an effort to learn from its EU colleagues, he said. This was partly due to the UK coming late to paid maternity leave, but giving a generous amount when it did, though at a low pay rate. Parental leave then went into “deep freeze” during the Conservative government of the 80s and early 90s, he said, opting out of various EU directives before “thawing” slightly under Labour and introducing low paid paternity leave, unpaid parental leave and extending maternity leave.
The coalition government had introduced Additional Paternity Leave followed by Shared Parental Leave, but, despite their names, both were really only transferable maternity leave and evidence showed that the shared element was mostly taken by women. The original plans for SPL had been diluted because of resistance by vested interest groups, said Professor Moss. The UK’s long maternity leave period had become well established over the previous 40 years, making it difficult to introduce greater rights for dads. This meant the UK had been left with a long but badly paid maternity leave period. Legislation on parental leave was weak and inflexible, he said. He felt leaving the EU would not have much impact because the UK had minimum EU standards and policymakers had not learnt from the most successful policies in Europe.
Other speakers at the roundtable event included Professor Elin Kvande from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. She outlined the Norwegian policy of parental leave which currently stands at 10 weeks for dads, 10 weeks for mums and 36 weeks to share. It is paid at 100% of earnings for 49 weeks or 80% for 59 weeks to eligible parents. The salary that will be paid is capped at 63,000 euros. Some employers top up to 100% pay for the whole period.
Norway led the way for daddy leave [on a use it or lose it basis] in 1993. It was argued that it guaranteed equality for mums and dads and meant dads had a closer relationship with their children. Other Scandinavian countries followed. As the leave has become more established more and more dads have taken it and usage has gone up as the number of weeks’ leave have risen. Dads in all sectors and at all levels take it, said Professor Kvande. They considered it their right. Employers and unions were both in favour. “It has been a great success,” she said.
Professor Len Shackleton from the Institute for Economic Affairs spoke about childcare, which he said was a bigger issue for most parents than parental leave. He argued that the government’s ‘free’ childcare policy had ended up with nurseries closing or passing on the extra costs to parents of younger children [given that the money provided to nurseries by government did not cover the full costs of childcare]. He claimed it had not had impressive results, for instance, the 15 free hours for three and four year olds had not helped many more women into work. Rather it had helped reduce bills for those who were already in work. Government intervention had unforeseen consequences because it was not well targeted and tended to benefit those who could afford to pay, he stated. Government intervention needed to be better targeted on what worked and it was “fundamentally dishonest” to say it was offering free childcare when it was just subsidising childcare.
Matthew Creagh from the TUC talked about the need to defend workers’ rights post Brexit, particularly those related to part-time workers, agency workers and fixed term workers and to keep up with future EU rights. The EU had brought new rights, such as the right to paid ante-natal appointments, temporary agency workers’ rights, better protection from dismissal for pregnant mums, unpaid parental leave and time off for dependents. These latter two were quite weak, but significantly used. The new rights announced recently brought improvements such as five days off for dependents, he said. Acas only recommended one or two days. The TUC wants to see improvements on employment status for insecure workers, day one rights, for instance, to flexible working, better pay for statutory parental leave and paternity allowance for the low paid self employed who missed out on paternity pay due to current earnings threshold levels. It would like to see independent arbitration over employment rights after Brexit, perhaps through the European Court of Justice or a similar body. He added that the TUC was finding it more difficult in recent months to negotiate parental rights, particularly with SMEs, because of a lack of robust evidence of their benefits for employers.
Dr Alison Koslowski from the University of Edinburgh outlined the Scottish system. The Scottish government is in charge of education and healthcare and has its own legal system, but not in charge of employment protection. Childcare was a clear political issue and the Scottish government wanted to encourage dads and had recently celebrated the Year of the Dad. The SNP was likely to put an individual entitlement to parental leave for dads in its manifesto. It was an opportunity to promote better parental leave legislation.
The discussion which followed the presentations focused on dads and the political impetus for childcare changes. Speakers questioned whether childcare was enough of a priority for the majority and said it should be seen as part of the infrastructure for employers.